All current Christian Churches are ultimately off-shoots of the Roman Catholic Church. The early gnostic groups mentioned by the Fathers of the Church, quoted below, were gone by the Middle Ages. The various orthodox churches broke with Rome around the year 870 AD over the filioque controversy. The Protestant Churches broke with Rome during the Reformation begun 1517 by Martin Luther, a former Catholic Priest ordained in 1507 AD. The English church broke with Rome under King Henry VIII, a process virtually complete by 1532, which "resulted in the so-called "Submission of the Clergy", by which they practically renounced all right of legislation except in dependence upon the king." Catholic Encyclopedia: Henry VIII, at the New Advent Supersite.
Only the Roman Catholic Church can trace its origin, generation by generation, back directly to the Apostles. (For the entire list of Popes with material on each see, the Catholic Encyclopedia.)
"Finally, the Church that issued from the commission of Christ to the apostles was necessarily apostolic. Christ founded the Church upon the apostles and in no other way: "Did I not choose you, the twelve?" he asked them (John 6:70). The apostles of all people understood perfectly well that they did not set themselves up in their own little community, as we sometimes today see "gospel churches" set up in store fronts or in the suburbs. The New Testament teaches, "One does not take the honor upon himself" (Heb. 5:4).
Nothing is clearer, then, that the Church started out as "apostolic." The question is whether the apostles had the power and authority to pass on to others what they had received from Christ. ...[T]hat they very definitely did have this power and authority; the New Testament evidence is clear about that. The subsequent historical evidence is equally clear that they did pass it on to successors (the bishops). Indeed there are already references in the New Testament itself to the appointment of bishops by the apostles, as well as to the appointment of further bishops by them (Titus 1:5-9). [See below for what the Fathers wrote.]
When we ask where, if anywhere, is to be found the same Church which the New Testament tells us Christ founded, we have to reformulate the question to ask: What Church, if any, descends in an unbroken line from the apostles of Jesus Christ (and also, not incidentally, possesses the other essential notes of the true Church of which the creed speaks)? ..."
"To ask these questions is to answer them: Any entity or body claiming to be the Church of Christ would have to be able to demonstrate its apostolicity by demonstrating an organic link with the original apostles on whom Christ manifestly established his Church. Nothing less than this could qualify as the "apostolic" Church which Jesus founded. " K. D. Whitehead , The Church of the Apostles, at EWTN. (The text was origionally found at the Catholic Answers Home Page. See their links on Church and Papcy.)
"Thus the early Church historian, J.N.D. Kelly, a Protestant, writes: "[W]here in practice was [the] apostolic testimony or tradition to be found? . . . The most obvious answer was that the apostles had committed it orally to the Church, where it had been handed down from generation to generation. . . . Unlike the alleged secret tradition of the Gnostics, it was entirely public and open, having been entrusted by the apostles to their successors, and by these in turn to those who followed them, and was visible in the Church for all who cared to look for it" (Early Christian Doctrines, 37)." [The Apostles successors where and are the Bishops.]
"Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry." (Pope Clement, Letter to the Corinthians 42:4-5, 44:1-3 [written in A.D. 80]). [The date, AD 80, is contemporary with the time when the New Testament was being written. The Gospel of Mark was already in existence, but Luke and Matthew may not have been. John certainly was not written until later.]
"But since it would be too long to enumerate in such as volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul--that church which has the Tradition and the with which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. For with this Church, because if its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world. And it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic Tradition"... St. Irenaeus of Lyons (written in AD 180), Against Heresies Book 3, chp. 3. [Irenaeus, in 180 AD, would be writing at the end of the New Testament period. Almost all books would be in existence, although some later books might not be written yet. Because the cannon of scripture, i.e. the books accepted as inspired by the Holy Spirit, has not been determined yet, Irenaeus was trying to solve the problem of who to listen to, who to believe, who had the best information on Christ's teaching, etc. His argument is that a church founded by an apostle whose successors faithfully preach the apostle's teaching will be reliable. Rome had the benefit of the preaching and ministry of the two greatest apostles, Peter and Paul. The teaching of these apostles was faithfully passed on in turn to chosen successors, and this is its guarantee of authenticity. Thus the preeminence of the Church in Rome was not proclaimed by Rome but by the Bishop of Lyons.]
"But if there be any [heresies] which are bold enough to plant [their origin] in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [their first] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men--a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter". Tertullian, The Prescription Against the Heretics chptr. 32 [written in A.D. 200].
Sometimes people criticize the Roman Catholic Church for the temporal authority is exercised in the past. John Cardinal Newman reminds us of the critical role the church played in Europe.
" It is a paradox to say that ecclesiastical and temporal power can never lawfully, religiously and usefully be joined together. Look at what are called the middle ages,-- that is, the period which intervenes between the old Roman Empire and the modern world; as I have said, the Pope and the Bishops saved religion and civil order from destruction in those tempestuous times,--and they did so by means of the secular power which they possessed."John Cardinal Newman, Sermons, Longman, Green, and Co. (1904) p.294. (For more on Newman see the mega links page.)
You can also see Newman's Analysis of the value of Apostolic Succession while he was still Anglican.
Nothing quoted above is meant to denigrate our Orthodox and Protestant brothers and sisters. Unlike some others we believe our separated friends can and are saved, although we also feel they are mistaken at times. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Christ's Spirit uses these [separated] churches and ecclesial communities as [a] means of salvation whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church." Section 819. [That we are brothers and sisters see section 818.] However, people forget that the very existence of scripture, its preservation and transmission, as well as the core doctrines shared by virtually all Christians came long before the Reformation. These truths were proclaimed and practiced for centuries in the Roman Catholic Church though the action of the Holy Spirit, who continues to teach and guide us within that Church.
Sometimes people criticize the Roman Catholic Church for various problems and even crimes that existed in the past. Every human institution consists of good people and bad people. It is illogical to condemn an entire institution because of the bad behavior of some of its members. Nor was it entirely one sided, as could be seen from a history of English persecution of Roman Catholics*. Finally, all those people have gone to judgment and it is time to move on, to share as common ground the search for truth and service to Him who is truth.**
The Roman Catholic Church is the only institution or organization that has existed continuously from Ancient time down to the present. It has survived Roman persecution, barbarian invasion, the growth of ignorance in the Dark Ages, Muslim invasion, political turmoil and secular efforts to dominate it or limit its power. It has survived sinful leaders, the Reformation, and schism. And it has survived communism in the modern world, as well as modern skepticism, and people's search for unrestrained pleasure. Logically, any one of these things could have caused it's destruction, but it survives. How could this survival occur if it was not for the presence and action of God? It has been, and continues to be, the source of truth, wisdom and salvation for countless millions.
** Of the 12 chosen by the Lord Himself, one was a "devil" by Jesus own admission (John 6:70). Of the rest, 2 are well known for their important contributions, Peter and John, but little is known about the rest. One could argue therefore that concerning Jesus' choices 17% were superior, 75% were average and 8% constituted failure. Why should we be surprised that in Christendom there are many among clergy and laity who are average in virtue and service, with some clear failures?
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